When you hear the word “sample”, what comes to mind?
…A delicious appetizer?
…A free trial period?
How about a melody?
The term “sample” in a musical context is used to describe a melody that is borrowed from one piece of music and included in another. Think of it as a musical quote! Though they are most commonly found in rap music, samples have become an increasingly more mainstream practice in all genres since the phrase was coined in the late 1970s.
Regardless of when they began to appear, because classical music is one of the most common genres to sample in pop and hip-hop songs, samples have also become one of the main ways in which young folks all around the world get introduced to classical music. [Jump to playlist]
Due to its long and rich history, much of classical music lies within the public domain. This means artists are free to reference a large amount of repertoire without having to worry about paying royalty fees or securing other permissions. Classical music was also one of the very first genres physically recorded, resulting in a large library of vinyl, CD, and online recordings available to the general public. The easy availability of classical recordings, as well as the genre’s rich harmonic structure and iconic melodies, make for great songwriting inspiration that often complements what is already in the contemporary zeitgeist.
The process of using classical music samples in pop is not dissimilar from the adaptation or arranging of other material in classical repertoire. Think of the many composers who have written a set of themes and variations on another’s piece. Or quotes of folk music and church hymns found within larger works. With how often it is mentioned in the works of the past 1,000 years, one could almost say that the Dies Irae was one of the very first “samples” to be used in the history of music!
Classical music borrowing from itself deserves a whole separate article, which will be written in due time. For now, check out these 7 non-classical songs — spanning rap, pop, alt, and more — that reference some of the world’s most famous classical music pieces!
1. Andrew Bird x Ludwig van Beethoven
Andrew Bird uses the chorus in "Atomized" from his 2022 album Inside Problems, to quote the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Pairing lazily crooned lyrics paired with the piece’s instantly recognizable melody gives Bird’s track a cool, cynical feel. We’re not really surprised to see Andrew Bird taking a page out of Beethoven’s book: despite working in the pop genre, he is a classically trained violinist with a performance degree from Northwestern!
2. BLACKPINK x Niccolò Paganini
A double sample! Blackpink's "Shut Down" borrows the the signature first four measures of Niccolò Paganini's "La Campanella," tuned down from its original key, played on repeat.
The K-Pop phenoms are hardly the first to take inspiration from the captivating violin work. Franz Liszt made Paganini's melody a staple with a legendary keyboard transcription.
Blackpink's management maintains that the group referenced the piece in order to give the song a “dark and mysterious aura."
3. Nas x Ludwig van Beethoven
Nas's 2002 rap hit “I Can” samples Beethoven's Für Elise, turned down a minor third, as the beat’s main musical accompaniment. Not only does the quote add a cool backdrop to the affirmations passed back and forth between rapper Nas and a chorus of kids, but it takes on another layer. Für Elise is a hallmark piece for those learning to play the keyboard. The fact that Nas samples one of the pillars of piano pedagogy adds another layer to this encouraging and uplifting song created for children.
4. Hieroglyphics x Joseph Haydn
Hieroglyphics' tongue-in-cheek "Classic" samples Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E-Flat throughout. Though the lyrics cover a range of topics, a theme of the song is the subversion of expectations. Rap has frequently been maligned, sometimes by proponents of art and music forms that enjoy more formal and cultural prestige. By sampling a classical music piece, the group interrogates what supposedly makes things cultured vs. uncultured, layering meanings to poke fun at detractors of rap music.
5. Robbie Williams x Sergei Prokofiev
Keeping the tongue-in-cheek theme going, Robbie Williams’s dance pop hit “Party Like a Russian” contains a myriad of references to Russian culture... including Prokofiev! The chorus of the song samples Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights, adding a darkly regal flair to the seemingly innocent chorus. However, while the chorus talks about partying, the rest of the song’s lyrics hint at the dichotomy between Russia’s contributions to art and the actions of certain political leaders (hint: check out the words being rhymed in the second half of the first verse.)
6. Muse x Edward Elgar
Muse’s “The Globalist” is one of the longest songs the band has ever produced. Featured on its album Drones, this 10-minute work tells the story of an individual during the rise and fall of a dictatorship. Most of the song is the band’s original work, however, the melody pivots at about 6:45 to directly quote Elgar’s Enigma Variations. This section lasts for the rest of the song.
7. Muse x Camille Saint-Saëns
Muse samples classical music in other songs, too. The group's "I Belong to You (Mon Cœur S'ouvre à Ta Voix)" cops to its classical inspirations in its title. As with "The Globalist," the song opens with an original melody before shifting gears to cover a beloved aria (in the original French!) from Camille Saint-Saëns's Samson and Delilah. The aria's name, as Muse notes in the song's name, is "Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix," which is best known in English as "Softly awakes my heart."
8. ZAYN x Johann Sebastian Bach
Bach’s Prelude in C Major is one of the most instantly recognizable pieces of classical music: soothing, simple, and comfortable. Perhaps that is why Zayn chose to use this piece as the main backing of his song “BLUE.” Though the piece is in the key of C Major, the One Direction alum presents the listener with an interesting twist that makes the song sound minor rather than major. Rather than having the melody begin together with the first chord on the home key of C major, Zayn delays his singing until the piece gets to measure 5, when it hits the chord of A minor. Building the melody off of the relative minor (A minor) rather than the piece’s “home key” (C major) makes the piece melancholic rather than joyful. A “Blue” feeling song indeed!